A Nasty Brexit Threatens the West

The U.K. plays an important role in sustaining American support for Europe.

Source: Vanity Fair


Like many divorces, the struggle between the European Union and the United Kingdom gets more bitter as time drags on. At last week’s EU summit in Salzburg, Austria, the assembled countries, led by France, contemptuously brushed aside British Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Chequers” Brexit plan. Flexing its muscles, the EU made its message clear: Britain must conform to our demands.

If there is no deal by March 29, 2019, onerous trade barriers will snap into place. The likelihood that post-Brexit Britain will suffer severe economic shocks and dislocation is growing.

Mrs. May’s Chequers plan would allow British goods to continue to be sold freely in the EU after Brexit, while services would be governed under different rules. In return, Britain would accept EU standards governing manufactured and agricultural products. From the perspective of many Europeans, even those who sympathize with the U.K., the plan looks like an effort to continue to enjoy the advantages of EU membership while opting out of the obligations, like accepting migration from other EU countries. Moreover, EU leaders reason that if the path of secession is shown to be easy, more departures could follow and the union will be inexorably weakened.

Many Brexit opponents, both in the U.K. and on the Continent, hope that the chaos of a “no deal” Brexit will bring about a second British referendum. Next time, they hope, a chastened British public will vote to remain. But repeating the referendum until the people vote the “right” way is more likely to fan the flames of populist anti-Brussels sentiment around the EU than to quell them.

The U.S. has so far not been involved in the discussions between the U.K. and its EU partners. This is not because it has no interest in the matter. From America’s standpoint, a no-deal Brexit that weakens Britain and poisons EU-U.K. relations would be a disaster. It would undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and one of America’s most important and valued allies. And if a radicalized Labour Party takes power in the wake of a Brexit calamity, the survival of the trans-Atlantic alliance could be at risk. The U.K. itself could come apart. It is crucial from the U.S. perspective that any divorce settlement maintain Western and allied cohesion in a dangerous world.

Some Europeans may view Brexit mainly as a matter of economics, but it is also inescapably a major security concern for the West. The relationship between post-Brexit Britain and the rest of the West cannot be evaluated simply as an internal matter for the EU. Britain may be leaving the EU, but it is not leaving the American-led Western alliance. The implications of a nasty and brutal Brexit for the Atlantic community are too consequential for Washington to ignore.

The European leaders taking a hard line against Mrs. May underestimate the role the U.K. plays in sustaining American support for Europe. President Trump has waffled in his commitment to NATO as a whole. But for many voters in Mr. Trump’s base—voters who otherwise are indifferent or even hostile to American involvement in European security—the U.K. is in a category similar to Israel: a country whose defense activates feelings of solidarity and honor. There is no other European country whose place in American affections is as deeply rooted and widely felt as the U.K. The perception in the U.S. that an inflexible EU is vindictively punishing Britain for asserting its national sovereignty would have profound and long-lasting consequences for American views of the EU.

A rigid EU approach to Brexit would strengthen the hands of those in the Trump administration who favor an all-out trade war with Europe and a weakened American commitment to European security. The EU’s approach to Britain will be seen at the highest levels of the administration as a fundamental test—a measure of France and Germany’s commitment to NATO and the trans-Atlantic relationship.

This does not mean that the U.S. expects Britain to retain a privileged position in the single market. The EU position that nonmembers cannot enjoy the full privileges of membership is both reasonable and just. But if NATO and the trans-Atlantic partnership still mean anything in Europe, a spirit of alliance solidarity needs to prevail over narrow political considerations.

The stronger party can afford to be generous; that has been the spirit that has governed the Western alliance since the 1940s. Both an “America First” Washington and an inflexible Brussels are now in danger of neglecting that truth. Without magnanimity on the part of its core members, the Western alliance will not long endure.

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